By Daniel Beller-McKenna, University of South Carolina, Contributor, The Compleat Brahms
Written for the concert The Other Voice of Johannes Brahms, performed on Nov 30, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Brahms composed this “German Te Deum” in 1870-71 during the patriotic fervor of the Prussian military victory over France and the subsequent establishment of a long awaited Kaiserreich under Prince Wilhelm I of Prussia. Like Ein deutsches Requiem, the Triumphlied is a multi-movement setting of biblical texts for chorus, soloist, and orchestra, and the two works form a distinct pair in Brahms’s sacred music. Brahms drew the text of the Triumphlied from Revelation, Chapter 19, the principal apocalyptic book of the Bible. By choosing this text-source to celebrate the apocalyptic turn of events of 1871, Brahms connected Op. 55 to a central vein of German thought since the French Revolution. Infused with a new religious enthusiasm in the early decades of the century and coupled with a generation of Romantic thinkers who were steeped (and often trained) in theology, Germans came to anticipate the arrival of a unified German nation along biblical, apocalyptic lines. In the aftermath of the French reign of terror and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe around the turn of the century, the re-establishment of a German Reich was anticipated as a messianic arrival. All of these events fit perfectly within the eschatological framework of apocalyptic writing in the Bible. According to such thinking at that time, the State was the ultimate and positive manifestation of the new Kingdom.
If the Requiem subtly represents an individually centered Germanic mode of expression, the Triumphlied is its public counterpart, bringing any nationalistic undertones in the earlier work completely to the surface. A gradual emergence of the public voice can be traced through the works for chorus and orchestra with which Brahms occupied himself from the time he completed the Op. 45 in 1868 to the completion of Op. 55 in 1872. In between, the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) once more displays an individual perspective epitomized by the solo voice, while the Schicksalslied, Op. 54, is decidedly communal and (much more than his sacred works per se) “universal” in expression. Perhaps it is the blatant expression of what can only be sensed in the Requiem that has consigned the Triumphlied to second-class status among Brahms’s works. For despite the disfavor into which the Triumphlied has fallen in this century, the work was very well received and continued to be performed regularly during Brahms’s lifetime, often in the presence and to the great satisfaction of its composer. Most observers, including those in the Brahms circle, recognized Op. 55 as a sister work to Op. 45, as a Deutches Te Deum to match Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms premiered the first movement (at that point the only one completed) on Good Friday, April 7, 1871, in the Bremen Cathedral along with the first complete, seven-movement performance of the Requiem there, conditions that were certain to draw parallels between the two works. Moreover, this concert consisting of Brahms’s Requiem and what at that time was labeled “Sacred Song of Triumph” was held “in memory of those who fell in the war,” a designation that automatically linked the two pieces and cemented their national significance. The reaction of critics to Op. 55 are especially interesting in this respect. In addition to lauding the work’s musical characteristics, they frequently cite it as an example of “Christian” art, a positive counterpart to Op. 45, while barely mentioning its relevance to current political events. Thus, our modern understanding of the Triumphlied strictly as an “occasional” piece ought to be tempered by its initial reception as a primarily religious work.
There is no evidence to suggest that Brahms pre-selected or pondered the text of the Triumphlied as he had for the Requiem, and as he would for all of his later biblical settings. Rather, it is likely that the passages from Revelation 19 were compiled spontaneously following the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war. Thus this work began as a reflexive act of patriotism and exposes Brahms’s core affinity to the political and military agenda of Bismarck’s Germany.
In Op. 55, Brahms produces not only the massive sounds one would expect in a national celebratory work of art, but also an aura of populist democracy that nineteenth-century commentators commonly associated with Handel’s oratorios (in direct comparison to the more individualistic utterances of Bach). And by extension, the choral writing in the Triumphlied sounds more Beethovenian than any other Brahms choral work, a similarity that probably owes to Beethoven’s own high esteem for Handel. Although the Beethovenian sound of Op. 55 is not grounded in quotation or allusion per se, the acceleration into the animato closing section in the D major first movement (mm.183ff.) with its strong syncopations and resounding unison A’s illustrate its affinity with the D major conclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Likewise, in the middle of the Triumphlied‘s third movement (mm.71ff.), the ascending diminished-chord arpeggios at the words “and he trampled the winepress of almighty God’s fierce wrath” evoke the sprech leise passage in the Prisoners’ Chorus from Act I of Fidelio.
As with works like Beethoven’s choral symphony and opera, Brahms’s Triumphlied probably requires the visceral effect of a live performance to be fairly judged and appreciated. Given the work’s disfavor in this century (a circumstance that merely accentuates the work’s poor reputation, deserved or not), listeners are fortunate this afternoon to have such a rare opportunity.